The History of Wine and Venice
Winemaking is a complex and delicate craft. The success or failure of a wine depends mainly on the grapes, and the quality and flavor of the grapes depend on where they grow. While wild grapes can grow easily with little oversight, wine grapes require careful care and tending. Neglected vineyards can go wild if not properly looked after.
Italy’s Wine Industry
Before Italy united into a single country, but after the fall of Rome, a handful of small nations controlled the peninsula. One of these was Venice, centered around the city with the same name. Venice grew rich, trading across the Mediterranean and funneling goods from distant lands into Europe. One of those goods was wine. While portions of Venice had areas that could grow grapes they put more effort into selling other people’s wine than making their own.
Ancient Romans also enjoyed wine, both for trade and consumption. Several Ancient Romans of note spoke of their favorites. For example, Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, preferred a well-known, quality wine called Setine. Unfortunately, wide varieties of wine grapes grown in Italy were lost over the centuries due to neglect and construction projects. Emperor Nero, for example, destroyed an old vineyard to build a canal.
A similar occurrence happened in Venice, but this time the vines were found, recovered, and nurtured back to health. While historically significant for the wine trade, Italian vineyards came and went across the centuries. Bringing back old vineyards allowed cities like Venice to expand in the wine market.
The Venice Lagoons
The vines called Dorona di Venezia were found crawling up the remains of a thirteenth-century monastery. At one time the monastery used these grapes to make wine for religious services and sold it to support the monastery. The vines were identified as a variety that had been previously thought to be lost to time. The discoverer of the vines, Gianluca Bisol, bought some nearby land in the Venice lagoon, a once vibrant wine-growing region that went out of favor as Venice’s trade empire made trading wine cheaper and more profitable than production.
The Venice lagoons were a popular location for vineyards like the abandoned monasteries. Not only did the area provide excellent drainage and space for the vines, but it also allowed growers to flood the land to remove the salt. As an ocean port brimming with saltwater, that salt can also seep into the surrounding lands. Removing saltwater is an essential part of the process for maintaining the vines.
A Hunt for Freshwater
Finding the freshwater for Bisol’s new vineyard required digging a 600-foot-deep well, but it was done as the purchased land got ready for the long-lost vines. In the process, he managed to find 88 vines to transplant and start his new vineyard.
Not only did Bisol want to bring the old vines back to make wine, but he also wanted to make wine in the style of ancient Venice. That meant macerating the juice for 40 days with their skins and aging it for two years. It was a risky investment with a large price tag, but the Dorona wine returned and has continued to provide a taste of wine from the past.
The rescued vintage is only twenty-five miles by boat from Venice, allowing easy access to global markets and plenty of tourist business. While Bisol’s business has expanded, the wine remains a significant component, as is fitting for wine so rooted in Venetian and Italian history.
Wine styles and vineyards come and go across the decades, centuries, and even millennia. For two thousand years, Venice has, in one way or another, been a significant part of European and especially Italian wine production and trade. In Ancient Rome, wine was the drink of choice for the majority of the Italian people, and various wines were traded and collected just like in modern times. As Rome fell, Venice rose as a prominent Italian city-state. Their connections across the Mediterranean and beyond allowed them easy access to the wine trade, making the city wealthy. As a side-effect, local wine production became neglected. More recently, appreciation for older styles and varieties has allowed wines like the Dorona to thrive. One way or another, Venice remains firmly entrenched in the wine business.
This Day in History
June 25, 1570 – The Ottoman-Venetian War begins. This war, fought between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, would see Venice lose control of Cyprus to the Ottoman Empire and, with it, the island’s famous wines.
May 12, 1797 – The Republic of Venice falls, changing hands between the Austrian and French Empires before becoming part of the Austrian Empire until a unified Italy was formed. No longer an independent nation, the wine trade continued, as did Venetian patriotism.
September 20, 1870 – Rome is captured by forces seeking to unify Italy. For the first time since the Roman Empire, Italy is a truly unified country. As a prominent city within that nation, Venice remains a vibrant port for commerce and tourism, with wine remaining a vital aspect of both.
Want to read more? Try these books!
- “The Winery Bringing Back Venice’s Lost Golden Grape.” Condé Nast Traveler. December 16, 2019. https://www.cntraveler.com/story/the-winery-that-resurrected-venetian-dorona-wine.
- “Wine and Vineyards in Venice and Its Islands.” 2017. SeeVenice. March 31, 2017. https://www.seevenice.it/en/wine-and-vineyards-venice-and-its-islands/.
- “Wine and Rome.” 2019. Uchicago.edu. 2019. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/wine.html.